As moderates in the ongoing political crisis exit the scene, fears are growing that hardline elements on both sides will gain the upper hand, increasing the risk of chaos or violence ahead.
After last week's failed talks between the government and student protesters, there are no more mediators for fresh dialogue, say those in the know, leaving a void for the more militant to move in.
In the anti-Occupy camp, there are "hawkish" proponents who believe that force should be deployed decisively before too long to show the protesters who is boss, according to a source from the Hong Kong establishment. Among the protesters are some who are "quite happy to see chaos", he added.
Civic Party legislator Ronny Tong, a member of the pro-democracy camp who has been involved in meetings with the protesters, said: "Any suggestion that they leave (the protest sites) are met with very severe reactions. It's not a matter of rational discussion any more."
The hardliners include members of radical political group Civic Passion, activists who first met on online platforms such as the popular Golden Forum, and certain figures within the Federation of Students (FS), he added.
With China not wanting Hong Kong to be the focus of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings starting in Beijing next Friday and ending on Nov 11, the next week or so will likely see a continued limbo.
Some believe this is a golden opportunity to broker a detente, but it seems unlikely for now as both sides stick to their positions.
"The soonest any action will be taken is after Apec. The leaders will make their calculations then," said a mainland source.
As the Occupy movement enters its 34th day today, it is anyone's guess what the ultimate endgame will be.
The most likely scenario is that Beijing will let the protest drag on indefinitely, as winter approaches and public unhappiness grows.
Meanwhile, moderates on both sides are sounding the warning that those who tried to work for a peaceful exit for the protesters are themselves leaving the scene. Their absence heightens the risk of miscalculations, possibly leading to a violent denouement.
Those leaving include the original Occupy organisers Benny Tai and Chan Kin Man, who announced on Tuesday that they are returning to their teaching duties at the universities. They stressed that they remain involved in the movement. Both men had struggled to exert a moderating influence on key decisions made by the FS, which this week called for a meeting with Premier Li Keqiang.
Similarly sidelined in the establishment camp are certain doves who had helped to broker informal discussions. Said one of them, who declined to be named: "I have been out of it for the past one, almost two weeks." Third-party mediators like Chinese University of Hong Kong vice-chancellor Joseph Sung and political science academic Joseph Chan are also out of the picture.
Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang, in an earlier interview, was despondent about the prospects of a peaceful resolution.
The establishment source said the "mainstream" in the Hong Kong government wants talks but will not budge on offering more concessions to end the impasse. Hovering in the wings are hawks who have long felt that Beijing had overindulged the city and believe the protesters should be forcibly removed. Even if so, it will be left to the Hong Kong government to disperse the protesters.
However, a niggling fear is that if protesters were to push back too hard and overwhelm the 30,000-strong police force, this will give hardliners in the establishment an excuse to invoke the article in the Basic Law that allows the use of Chinese troops to maintain "public order".
"That will be the end of 'one country, two systems'," said the source.
This article was first published on Oct 31, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.